Ada Limón is the author of Bright Dead Things (Milkweed 2015), a current finalist for the 2015 National Book Award, as well as three previous collections, Lucky Wreck (Autumn House Press 2006), This Big Fake World (Pearl Editions 2006), and Sharks in the Rivers (Milkweed Editions 2010). Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and American Poetry Review among other publications. She has contributed essays and articles to a variety of publications, such as Oxford American, Guernica, Poetry, and American Poetry Society. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky. The following conversation took place with poet Sarah Green over email.
Congratulations on being named a finalist for the National Book Award!
Can you tell us about how you found out, and what your reaction was?
Thank you so much. To be honest, I’m still in shock. I shouted so loud and told my partner and then my Mom. And after I hung up and was alone for a little while, I actually started crying. I mean, as poets, this is not something we’re used to, right? We’re used to plugging away, keeping our head down, doing our day jobs without anyone noticing that
we secretly love poems, and quietly doing the work alone. So this sort of public recognition is rather earth shattering. I was such a mess. I had tears streaming down my face and then I just crawled into bed and let myself sort of cry it out. Then, I got up and had to go get my work done like any other day; but, as you can imagine, I could barely write a sentence without buzzing. This has been the biggest honor of my life and it’s hard to believe it’s true. I’m grateful for this moment and each day I’m trying to breathe through it so I really appreciate the gift of this bizarre and amazing thing.
Your poem “The Problem With Travel” contains what seems to be a playful allusion to Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” You write, “Every time I’m in an airport, / I think I should drastically / change my life” (88).The speaker here sounds both sincere and ironic, both self-aware and oblivious—a wonderful tonal paradox this book produces frequently. But this poem diverges sharply from Rilke’s famous charge to do just that, “change your life.” Instead, “We’re small and / flawed, but I want to be / who I am,” your speaker resolves.
In what ways do you see Bright Dead Things circling a theme of what might be called anti-grandiosity? Or, if that’s not the right phrase, what would you call this kind of peace making with the “live things” the speaker loves in “The Long Ride“ although “what they’ve done / is terrible”? Surrender? Maturity?
What a wonderful question. That poem surprised me when I wrote it because I was initially leaning the same way Rilke was in his poem—go ahead, change your life—but then as I got to the conclusion, for the first time in a long, long while, I didn’t want to. I wanted not to change (at least in that moment). I was writing the poem in the lobby of an airport at the time, waiting for my friends Adam Clay and Michael Robins to join me for a poetry tour. I was feeling the palpable thrill of having a real home, and a place to return to after the travels were done. It’s hard to explain, but I felt so grateful.
This was just one of the poems that became a seed for the whole book. I realized that this making peace, this surrender was the only thing I was interested in. However, I wasn’t sure if that feeling could make interesting and engaging poems. I thought perhaps, if you took out that thrilling engine of desire, damage, and rage that well, what was the point of a poem that sought out happiness and ease? Then, I realized that that’s what my work is…life’s every day work and the work of each poem…was just to try to get to that place of surrender. Even when rage, and desire, and self-hatred, and shame, and ugliness, and jealousy, and political outrage, and societal insanity were trying to get the better of me, I wanted to work toward something, a life, that felt live-able, that felt like more than just survival, but a life that was actively thankful and held within it a radical hope despite the darkness all around. I felt I owed that to those that couldn’t go on living anymore. It was my duty.
Speaking of allusions, “The Other Wish” offers a feminist Icarus, cosmically matrilineal; this heroine falls from the moon and not the sun. Your heroine wants “to fall from the terrifying height / of her,” and it is implied that this fall itself would be an honor. The speaker is able to maintain her association with lunar (divine feminine?) power through the worshipful act of attempting connection, as if failing is not antithetical to connection. It’s impossible not to think here of Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying”; however, where Gilbert’s Icarus was “not failing as he fell, / but just coming to the end of his triumph,” your Icarus-figure describes “the victory of my disastrous flight.” Once again in this book, failure is reframed, even admired. Would you say there’s something feminist about this poem’s—this book’s—take on failure? If this question resonates, how so?
Yes, I’d absolutely, 100%, say that the whole book is a feminist book with a feminist outlook—because it’s my book with my own outlook. I always say that my two favorite “F-words” are feminism and forgiveness. I’m interested in your phrase, “feminist take on failure,” that’s not something I’ve thought about, but “The Other Wish” does play with the idea of celebrating the failed attempts, recognizing “shooting for the moon” as something worthy in and of itself of deep, deep praise. I love Gilbert’s poem (of course) “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew,” but actually this poem was a response to Muriel Rukeyser’s poem, “Waiting for Icarus” which is (as my students know), one of my all time favorite poems. It’s a feminist retelling of what it would be like to stand on the shore and wait for Icarus with the amazing last two lines, “I would have liked to try to those wings myself./ It would have been better than this.” My poem, “The Other Wish” wants to be in conversation with those stunning last two lines.
But the sun has historically always been such a dominating male symbol, so I wanted to play with what it would be like to make my female Icarus fly toward the great feminine metaphor in the night sky, to want her (the moon) to be the thing the flyer would fall from. Failing and falling, in this poem, are both the attempts at redemption, connection, and forgiveness. I wanted that “going down in flames” image at the end of the poem to be almost ecstatic rather than dreadful. As if our female Icarus was wide-smiling like a she-wolf all the way down into the dust. There’s a lot more I could say about this poem about failure, shame, sexuality, but I feel like that’s just giving it all away. Sometimes you have to let the mystery be.
This is your fourth book. It takes intentionality and ambition to draft, complete, and place one manuscript with a press, let alone four. Yet this book contains lines like “that tree… saves by not trying” and “racing no one / but ourselves.” Is it possible, do you think, to maintain a healthy relationship with both striving and stillness? Is it ever the case for you that spending time in one of these two modes can further your reach in the other?
Oh I think it’s not only possible, but absolutely necessary to keep the balance between striving and stillness. This is poetry after all. You can’t strive all the time. Striving is what you do when you send your poems out, or read your poems, or lug your books to your readings like a Willy Loman of poetry, or make rent, or kill yourself at a job when all you want to do is write poems. That’s striving. But poetry, poem writing, can only take place in stillness. It has to come out of that quiet place where you can hear the self beneath the self, rising up and out. You might laugh at this, but this book came out of the period of time when I was writing my first novel. All I wanted to do was finish a novel and be proud of it (sure I wanted to publish it too). I worked so hard (strived!) at it, so hard, for three years. And when I was done, the best thing I had created were the individual poems that began the manuscript of Bright Dead Things. I wasn’t rushing to write them. They were the things I made on the side that brought me joy, what I did to survive. The book is a culmination of five years of work. I took my time. I edited. I published here and there, but really it came slowly and quietly until it snuck up on me and stood on my chest like a beast ready to brawl. It licked its gums and said, “And you thought you were writing a novel.”
What I mean by this is, poetry wants you to live your life and find happiness, and breathe. That doesn’t mean that I don’t work incredibly hard at each individual poem, I do. But I don’t think about them as books until they start to come together way down the road. When I’m writing, it’s just me and the poem at hand. Nothing else really matters. I think it’s always more important to care about the poetry than it is to care about the career. That’s easier said than done, but just caring about the craft and art of the poem is a lot more fun then wondering what’s going to happen next. I don’t think art should be suffering. Life has so much suffering. Art should be a gift.
In the poem “Someplace like Montana”, the speaker narrates a phase of life “when every shirt I bought at the secondhand store / would turn out to be see-through, / but I wouldn’t know it until I was out,” and says, “a lot of conversations would start, Is this shirt see-through? And it was.” (16)
I love so many things about this image: the funny/unfortunate repetition of wardrobe malfunction and what it says about the speaker’s dreamy, trusting lack of vigilance. The squirmy headline of “and it was”—its similarity to the seemingly universal naked-in-public dream. The way time passing turns what may have been embarrassment into humor and even pride or this time conscious repetition.
When it comes to the “reveal” of autobiographical poetry, have you ever exposed more than you intended? Do you ever find yourself consciously “confessing” but performing obliviousness for artistry’s sake? Would answering this question give too much away?
That’s funny that you quote this poem. Two days ago I bought a dress at a secondhand store and as soon as I saw my mother, I said “Is this dress see-through?” And I think we agreed it was only a little see-through and therefore I was safe to continue walking through town. So it’s still happening to me (and I still primarily shop at secondhand stores).
I do confess and reveal a great deal in my work. And I don’t think I have ever confessed something that I’m later ashamed of, but I have confessed things that surprise me. “Service” is a poem that I was surprised that I wrote, and equally thrilled at how many women have been moved by it when I read. (Thank you, Jennifer L. Knox for encouraging me to write it in the first place.) Mainly, I’m interested in saying something honest and figuring out what I think I need to say, for myself as a writer and as a human. I’m at a point in my life where I’m less concerned about obfuscating the truth or feigning obliviousness for the sake of craft. I want to write poems that engage with other people and to do so I want to speak the truth and say things as honestly as possible without losing the music and the lyrical tension of the lines.
Finally, my friend Kathryn Nuernberger asked me to ask you a question about horses. She writes: “I’m reading [Bright Dead Things] this morning. I’ve never been so into horses in my whole life. Can you turn “thank you for horses” into some kind of smart question for me?” Please answer the following question: Thank you for horses?
Horses! Yes, I’m so glad Kathryn is feeling a connection to them. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in animals. I think horses for me have this spiritual strength in them that always stuns me. They are so powerful and gorgeous and capable. I admire them so deeply. My mother is the ranch manager for a forty-acre ranch in Sonoma, and for a long time they housed retired police horses there. I was so in awe of them. But also scared. I’ve never been one to want to approach a horse as if it’s a pet. In Kentucky, where I live most of the time, I stand at the fence line, at a safe distance and wave. For me, horses (and all animals really) symbolize the unknown, the deep wordless power of being, and I love to think of those great round eyes watching us from the fields, don’t you?
Interviewer Sarah Green is the author of the chapbook Skeleton Evenings (Finishing Line Press) and the forthcoming collection Earth Science (421 Atlanta).
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